With First Center For Homeless Living In Vehicles Set To Close, Supervisors Review Cost, Performance

INGLESIDE, San Francisco — As San Francisco’s first sanctioned site to provide space for unhoused people to live in their vehicles closes next month, city supervisors Monday discussed its efficacy and the possibility of expanding elsewhere.

District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, whose district housed the city’s first Vehicle Triage Center at a parking lot near the Balboa Park BART station, touted the success of the pilot program at the board’s Land Use and Transportation Committee.

“I have to say after over a year of this being in the district, we’ve housed individuals, Safaí said. “We’ve done it at an effective cost after removing the initial capital investment.”

In December 2019, the city opened the VTC at 2340 San Jose Ave., a parking lot for employees of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, to provide 29 spaces for persons living in recreational or passenger vehicles to store them.

Safaí said it was just a few years ago when residents in his district began complaining about the rise in people living in RVs and vehicles. The initial response was to ask the SFMTA to put up signs that forbid overnight parking for large vehicles, but the transit agency had a policy at the time that they would not take any legislation on oversized vehicle restriction bans until city departments worked on a better long-term solution for persons living in vehicles.

It was then that talks about creating a safe parking lot became more serious between city officials. Safaí and former Supervisor Vallie Brown introduced legislation to create the city’s first safe parking lot and supervisors passed the legislation in 2019. 

As the current site at the Balboa Park Upper Yard closes next month to make way for an affordable housing development, city officials discussed the positives from the pilot program and lessons learned at the board committee hearing.

Dylan Schneider, manager of policy and legislative affairs with the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, presented results during the first year of operation from November 2019 to November 2020, which also can be found in a recently released report from the Controller’s Office.

The site, operated by the nonprofit Urban Alchemy, served 75 people in its first year of operation with clients trending older in age. Forty-three percent of clients were over the age of 50, according to the controller’s report.

Of the 75 who entered the site, 44 exited during the year, representing 27 households. The majority of clients were living in RVs or larger vehicles. The clients who exited had differing outcomes.

Thirty-three percent of clients came from District 11, 25% of clients came from District 10 and 21% of clients were from District 7. Districts 2, 4, 5, 6 and 9 also had clients at the site. The city’s Vehicle Encampment Resolution Team worked on finding potential clients.

Schneider said the city’s homeless outreach team, known as SFHOT, provided case management services on site to connect clients to city services and create a plan to exit.

The controller’s report said 11 people received housing, eight had been transferred to a stabilization room or shelter-in-place hotel room due to medical reasons and 18 clients voluntarily left the site. Seven clients, or eight households, received a denial of service because of behaviors of one or more household members.

Costs for constructing and operating the site year totaled nearly $1.7 million, which included one-time capital costs, such as setting up electricity and utilities on the site and the rental of an office trailer.

Other costs included staffing the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Operation costs did not include case management services provided by SF HOT, which HSH estimated at $130,000. 

Steven Currier, co-chair of the Vehicle Triage Center Community Working Group, said he is encouraging supervisors in the current budget process to continue the safe parking program. 

Schneider said there were some early lessons learned from the pilot program if the city established a new site.

City officials originally predicted that 50% of the clients would store the vehicles at the site while accessing services, but more than half of the clients stayed on site in their vehicles. Officials had to expand electricity to the entire site.

More electricity for on-site living, incorporating case management services into the safe parking program model and continuing to explore other sites in the city were recommended.

Schenieder said costs for new sites will vary based on lot size and site preparation.

The department expects a shortfall of $3.5 million to construct and operate a new site with 40 to 50 spaces.

“HSH is continuing to both explore potential sites and develop criteria for both program models and a fiscal budget to help inform site selection for potential new sites,” she said.